Senior officials and travel industry players are eager to draw in mainland Chinese visitors to Cambodia after Beijing on January 8 reopened to inbound and outbound tourism, scaling back Covid-19 entry and exit restrictions.

Beijing’s move comes amid concerns that spiralling coronavirus infections in China following the dismantling of its “dynamic zero-Covid” regime could be driving the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants of the pathogen.

Minister of Tourism Thong Khon affirmed to local media on January 6 that Cambodia is “ready” to welcome back mainland Chinese visitors, presenting an estimate for the 2023 total at about “one million” or a “10-fold” increase over 2022, which he noted was out of the “3.5-to-four million” foreign arrivals expected this year.

The latest tourism ministry figures show that mainland China accounted for 90,648 of Cambodia’s 1.914 million international visitors in January-November 2022, down from the 2.362 million and 6.611 million respectively tallied in the record-breaking year of 2019.

To attain these tentative targets, the minister said, the Cambodian government and private sector have developed more roads and set up more entertainment facilities and venues. “We have clear plans and programmes” prepared to cater to Chinese tourists, he added.

Khon also noted that the local community has undertaken Chinese language translation and yuan payment initiatives to encourage mainlanders to travel to the Kingdom.

Nonetheless, he called on tourism players to improve the quality of their services in line with current market trends and developments.

Speaking to The Post on January 8, Cambodia Association of Travel Agents president Chhay Sivlin asserted that the Kingdom has what it takes to bring in significant numbers of Chinese tourists.

She remarked that prior to this wider reopening, mainland Chinese arrivals to Cambodia had been largely limited to investors, technicians and students, with relatively few numbers of flights to and from the territory.

Still, she argued that an instant surge in Chinese travellers to Cambodia may not be very likely so close to the Lunar New Year – which falls on January 22 this year.

“The number of Chinese tourists going abroad won’t be large immediately … [it] may be higher after the Chinese New Year,” Sivlin claimed.

On January 2, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that Cambodia would not follow in other countries’ footsteps in imposing any additional Covid-related restrictions on arrivals from the Chinese mainland.

On the contrary, the premier presented the development as an opportunity to bring in around “two million” mainland Chinese visitors this year, cashing in on pent-up travel demand. He stressed that greater numbers of Chinese tourists would spur near-term and longer-term growth in the Cambodian economy.

Of note, according to the tourism ministry, Cambodia has only tallied more than two million annual mainland Chinese visitors twice: 2.024 million in 2018 and 2.362 million in 2019, of which 1.299 million and 1.577 million respectively declared “holiday” as their purpose of visit.

Meanwhile, in a January 5 statement, the ministry described China as the largest source of potential tourists, given its massive population.

The ministry hailed the quality of China’s transportation links with the Kingdom as well as the two countries’ cooperative ties across a variety of fields, and suggested that involvement in the oft-mentioned “community of common destiny” means that the Chinese tourist market is a top priority for Cambodia as well as ASEAN.

“We are pleased to welcome Chinese tourists”, and travellers from elsewhere, to Cambodia “without any health conditions”, the statement affirmed.

Prior to the Covid-19 crisis in 2019, Chinese citizens made 155 million outbound trips – accounting for 10 per cent of the global total – spending about $258 billion abroad, or about one-fifth of the $1.3 trillion in world tourism spending, it said.

ASEAN received 32.2 million Chinese tourists, accounting for 22.5 per cent of arrivals to the Southeast Asian bloc. Of that number, Thailand received 11 million, Singapore received 3.4 million and Malaysia received 3.1 million, the statement added.

It noted that mainland Chinese travellers to Cambodia accounted for some $1.8 billion in tourism receipts in 2019 – or roughly three-eighths of the $4.919 billion generated by all visitors to the Kingdom that year, as shown by previous ministry data.